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Soho Road in Handsworth

Handsworth (grid reference SP035905) is an inner city area of Birmingham in the West Midlands, England.

The Local Government Act 1894 divided the ancient Staffordshire parish of Handsworth into two urban districts: Handsworth and Perry Barr. Handsworth was annexed to the county borough of Birmingham in Warwickshire in 1911.[1] Perry Barr UD would survive until 1928 when it was split between Sutton Coldfield and West Bromwich.[2]



The name Handsworth originates from its Saxon owner Hondes and the Old English word weorthing, meaning farm or estate. It was recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086, as a holding of William Fitz-Ansculf, the Lord of Dudley, although at that time it would only have been a very small village surrounded by farmland and extensive woodland.

From the thirteenth century through to the eighteenth century, it remained a small village until Matthew Boulton who lived at the nearby Soho House set up the Soho Manufactory in 1764 on Handsworth Heath. Accommodation was built for the factory workers, the village quickly grew, and in 1851, there were over six thousand people living in the township. Forty years later over thirty-two thousand were counted at the census of 1881, and by 1911, this had more than doubled to 68,610.

The development of the built environment was sporadic and many of Handsworth's streets display a mixture of architectural types and periods - among them some of the finest Victorian buildings in the city. Handsworth has two grammar schools - Handsworth Grammar School for boys and King Edward VI Handsworth Girl's Grammar School. St Andrew's church is a listed building in Oxhill Road which also held Sunday School classes in a small building on the corner of Oxhill Road and Church Lane. It also contains Handsworth Park, which in 2006 underwent a major restoration, the vibrant shopping area of Soho Road, and St. Mary's Church, Handsworth containing the remains of the founders of the Industrial Revolution - Watt, Murdoch and Boulton.

Birmingham historian Dr. Carl Chinn noted that during World War II the boundary between Handsworth and the outlying suburb of Handsworth Wood marked the line between being safe and unsafe from bombing, with Handsworth Wood being an official evacuation zone, despite being at least ten miles away from any countryside that might now qualify as "green belt" land, and being on the periphery of many "high risk" areas. (ref: Carl Chinn (1996) Brum Undaunted: Birmingham During the Blitz, Birmingham Library Services) During World War II, West Indians had arrived as part of the colonial war effort, where they worked in Birmingham munitions factories. In the Post-war period, a rebuilding programme required much unskilled labour and Birmingham's industrial base expanded, significantly increasing the demand for both skilled and unskilled workers. During this time, there was direct recruitment for workers from the Caribbean and the area became a centre for Birmingham's African-Caribbean community.

The West Indian population in Birmingham numbered over 17,000 by the 1961 census count. In addition, during this time, Indians, particularly Sikhs from the Punjab arrived in Birmingham, many of them working in the foundries and on the production lines in motor vehicle manufacturing[citation needed], mostly at the Longbridge plant some 10 miles away.

By the early 1960s, there was much racial tension in the country and a great deal of this was being felt in Handsworth.

Civil unrest

Although these ethnic groups contributed to the local economy, they have fallen victim to a great deal of racism. These problems had started during the 1950s, but the major problems didn't begin until a riot in 1981, during which similar riots took place in London, Leeds and Liverpool as well. Handsworth's most notable rioting took place in September 1985 and also overspilled into neighbouring Lozells. As in many parts of Britain, the conflict between black people in Birmingham, including the police service, fire service and all other local authorities was the start of unrest.

The 1985 riot claimed the life of a local post office owner, who was killed when a firebomb was hurled through the window of his shop.[citation needed]

After the Handsworth riots caused a huge publicity shock to world perception of British sub-urban integration, the approach to a mostly hostile community were reviewed. Local government was forced into building new community relations as a way of managing both racial and cultural differences. Encouragement was provided by arts organisation like West Midlands Ethnic Minority Arts Service and private groups such as Shades of Black, which works closely with the community and is still going strong today.

In 2005, further rioting broke out, in which two people were killed[citation needed], many injured, and countless damage to property occurred, resulting in the biggest[citation needed] investigation to ever be undertaken by West Midlands Police. The riots were sparked by rumours that a young black girl had been raped by a group of Asian youths, although no evidence was found to suggest the crime took place, and the supposed victim was never found.

Musical legacy

Handsworth has produced some notable popular musical acts: Steel Pulse (whose first studio album Handsworth Revolution is named after the area), Joan Armatrading, Pato Banton, Benjamin Zephaniah, Swami, Apache Indian, Ruby Turner and Bhangra group B21 and Jamaican musicians such as Mighty Diamonds, Alton Ellis, Burning Spear and Dennis Brown have performed in Handsworth, rare photographs of these musicians are held in Pogus Caesar's OOM Gallery Archive. In addition, Steve Winwood and progressive rock drummer Carl Palmer were born in Handsworth.

The tenor Webster Booth was born in Handsworth in 1902, and began his singing career as a child chorister at the local parish church of St. Mary’s. Together with his duettist wife Anne Ziegler, he became a mainstay of West End musicals and wartime musical films. A BBC Showbiz Hall of Fame article described him as "possessing one of the finest English tenor voices of the twentieth century." [3]


Handsworth Park has hosted numerous events: The Birmingham Tattoo, The Birmingham Festival (both originally called Handsworth- rather than Birmingham-) and the Flower Show, and in 1967 The Birmingham Dog Show. The Scouts Rally was another annual event held in the park for many years when scouts from a wide area congregated and paraded. The Handsworth Carnival grew out of the Flower Show and Carnival; Caribbean style carnivals began in Handsworth Park, in 1984, with a street procession via Holyhead Road. Also, the guitarist Richard Michael hails from this area. In 1994 the carnival was held in Handsworth Park for the last time. The following year it was moved from the park out onto the streets of Handsworth, since which time it has been known as the Birmingham International Carnival. In 1999, it was again held in a park, but this time in Perry Barr Park. Handsworth Park also hosts an annual Vaisakhi Mela.

Notable residents

  • Francis Asbury, born in Handsworth, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church[4]
  • Matthew Boulton (1728–1809) Lived in Soho House. Buried in St Mary's Churchyard.
  • Bert Freeman (1885–1955), England international footballer was born in Handsworth
  • William Murdoch (1754–1839). Inventor. He was the first to make extensive use of coal gas for illumination and a pioneer in the development of steam-power. In 1777, he entered the engineering firm of Matthew Boulton and James Watt, whose experiment on the distillation of coal and wood first brought gas lighting to a practical stage, illuminating their factory with it in 1803. Presented with the Rumford Medal by the Royal Society. Buried in St Mary's Churchyard.
  • George Ramsay (1855–1926) Secretary/Manager of Aston Villa in the most successful period of the club's history. Buried in St Mary's Churchyard.
  • Tommy Roberts, Professional footballer.
  • James Watt (1736–1819) Lived on the "Heathfield" estate, on land that now comprises West Drive and North Drive. Buried in St Mary's Churchyard (although his tomb is now in the subsequently expanded church).
  • Benjamin Zephaniah (born 1958) poet and writer, grew up in Handsworth.
  • Mr Hudson singer
  • Army Lion stencil artist

See also

External links


  1. ^ Vision of Britain on Handsworth
  2. ^ Vision of Britain on Perry Barr
  3. ^ "Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth". Showbiz Hall of Fame. BBC. Retrieved 2009-12-09. 
  4. ^ Who Was Who in America, Historical Volume, 1607-1896. Chicago: Marquis Who's Who. 1963. 
  • Simon Baddeley (1997), The Founding of Handsworth Park 1882-1898, Birmingham University
  • Carl Chinn (1996), Brum Undaunted: Birmingham During the Blitz, Birmingham Library Services
  • Peter Drake (1998), Handsworth, Hockley, & Handsworth Wood, Tempus, Stroud, Glos
  • Allen E Everitt (1876), Handsworth Church and its Surroundings, E.C. Osborne, Birmingham
  • Frederick William Hackwood (1908), Handsworth: Old & New: A History of Birmingham's Staffordshire Suburb, (re-published: A & B Books, Warley, West Midlands)
  • John Morris Jones (1980), The Manor of Handsworth: An Introduction to its Historical Geography, with amendments by “Friends of Handsworth Old Town Hall” 1969. Handsworth Historical Society
  • Handsworth General Purposes & other Committees - Minute Book 1880A, Handsworth Local Sanitary Board, Birmingham City Council, Central Library Archives, (ref: BCH/AD 1/1/1)
  • Handsworth & Birmingham newspaper cuttings collected and arranged by G.H. Osborne between approx. 1870 and 1900, Birmingham City Council, Central Library Archive (ref: L.f30.3)
  • Victor J.Price (1992), Handsworth Remembered, Studley: Brewin Books

Coordinates: 52°30′45″N 1°56′59″W / 52.51238°N 1.94986°W / 52.51238; -1.94986



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